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David Lawrence
Blue Billy's Rogue Lexicon

Adult; General Fiction (including literary and historical); (Market)

William Dempsey was a wonder among wonders. By 18, he had risen from a gang of London street rogues to be the personal plaything of the Marquess of Argyll. Maintained in splendour, celebrated at masquerades – with everything he could wish for. Now all has come crashing down. He is put out in the rain without patronage, his West End apartment, or a place among the ton. So on a stormy night, he arrives at a house in Southwark. Marathon Moll’s in the Mint – the bawdyhouse he worked in during his ascent and where he earned the name Blue Billy. But is Marathon Moll’s a place from which to rise again? For there is one in the crowd, who catches his eye. Who takes his hand and promises something better. Or does Moll’s signify a return to his roots? For one day, a second and very different young man raps on the door. Takes his hand and asks him to return to his past. To the cat language of vagabonds. The canting dialect of thieves. To the schemes, and the dreams, of his youth.
This evocative historical novel of rogues, sex, and found community from Lawrence (Hugh) finds young William “Billy” Dempsey, in London, 1771, cast aside by the Marquess of Argyll, a nobleman who had kept him in luxury as his live-in lover. Blue Billy—his moniker among sex workers—has no choice but to return to his former place of employment, a male brothel in a squalid area of the city. When he was just thirteen, Billy’s mother sold him into prostitution to Marathon Moll, who auctioned off his virginity to the highest bidder. Although Billy thought he’d secured a more comfortable life beyond Moll’s, the seedy brothel now is his last resort. His penchant for stealing makes Moll reluctant to welcome him back, until the house’s rising star, Sukey Chandler, befriends him. A string of adventures leads Billy to two men offering different futures and the possibility of departing the bawdy life on his own terms.

What the novel lacks in plot it makes up for in racy humor, rich atmosphere, and vivid characterization. Scenes like a staged “marriage” at Moll’s are uproarious, and the brothel offers a heartening sense of connection and camaraderie. Lawrence draws a sharp contrast, though, with life outside it, as Billy’s London is a foreboding place full of thieves and vagrants speaking a street dialect called “cat language,” one of many striking details that bring the milieu to life. (We learn that “stairs were dancers, cloaks doashes, pretty wenches dimbermorts.”)

Charming and sympathetic, Billy aims to rise above his origins in poverty, and Lawrence showcases his bold steps to do so in brisk, witty prose. Other characters also engage: Sukey, an aspiring stage actor who also yearns for a better life, makes a grand sidekick, while a rugged carpenter and a dapper “Beggar Extraordinaire” round out the cast as Billy’s competing love interests. The brothel setting might lead some readers to expect graphic sex, but Billy’s story veers more toward light historical romance.

Takeaway: A racy charmer finds a young man in Georgian London seeking a fresh start at a bawdy house.

Great for fans of: K.J. Charles, Mackenzi Lee

Production grades
Cover: A-
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: B+
Marketing copy: A